Listen: Simon Manchester with Christian Growth. (Airs 8am Sundays on Hope 103.2 & Inspire Digital.)
Many people believe Christianity is an unreasonable and irrelevant faith, even intolerant and hypocritical. In a 5-part series, Simon Manchester responds to these claims one by one. This week: intolerance.
Part 2 – Is Christianity Intolerant?
[Prayer]: Our Heavenly Father we do pray that your word would dwell in us richly and that from the word dwelling in us richly, good things would come to your glory. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
The question today in our morning series as you probably know now is, “Is Christianity Intolerant?” How can one group, and a not especially impressive group, of people claim to be right about God and the future, and treat so many therefore as wrong, and push their beliefs to other people? It’s a big issue and I want to face it this morning under three headings.
The first is “A Really Big Objection”, the second “A Really Big Authority”, which is what Jesus has, and third, “A Really Big Responsibility”, which is what we have.
“A Really Big Objection”
Firstly, “A Really Big Objection”. This issue, that Christianity appears to be intolerant or is intolerant, is the number one chapter in the book that has been produced recently by Tim Keller called Reason for God. The idea that there can be one true religion is so objectionable today to some that the pressure is on to outlaw religion, to condemn religion or to privatise it. And that’s getting harder to do because the major religions are on the increase, especially Christianity is on the increase in countries like Africa and recently Korea and recently China and the question or the possibility is raised that if the growth of the Chinese church continued for the next 20 years at the same rate, it is possible that there will be 500 million Christians in China, which many people recognise will change the whole course of history. So it’s not quite so easy to outlaw them or privatise religion.
Another writer says of this subject, of the intolerance of Christianity, that Christian exclusivity is the greatest challenge for the church today. So if you read books that have to do with objections to Christianity that came out of the 70’s or 80’s, the objections were things like science, miracles, Bible, most of that stuff is now well down the list – and right at the top of the list is the idea that the church, that Christians, would have some exclusive claim on God. And many people reject Christianity for this reason, more than for any other reason. There is more heat attached to a discussion on this subject than any other issue and it seems to many, more rational to believe in many religions than to believe the Christian argument. People will say, “Look, you can see plainly on the television that many have different culture, different skin colour, different language, different clothing – why not different, perfectly reasonable, religions?”
At a popular level the argument goes like this – this is Hugh Jackman, the actor, in the paper last month who followed his dad into Christianity after his dad became a Christian at a Billy Graham Crusade. Hugh Jackman says this: “it didn’t really click with me, it left too many questions unanswered. I couldn’t get past the fact that so many people on the planet are going to hell because they are not Christians”. Surely that’s a sentiment that resonates with the believer and unbeliever.
Or this is Roy Williams in his popular ABC book called God, Actually. He says, “I believe it may be possible for a person who doesn’t practise any religion or even to have heard of the Christian church to achieve the state of grace that is acceptable to God”. I’m sure again that’s a very popular sentiment.
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And if you think this is just the secular view, a survey of church members in America called the pew forum has found that 70 percent say that other religions can lead to eternal life. In other words the Bible, which is the only authority on eternal life, is being abandoned at the crucial level in the churches on how to receive that eternal life.
Can Other Religions Lead to Eternal Life?
Now friends, I wonder whether if we did a survey this morning, “Can other religions lead to eternal life” – how many people in this building would say “Yes, they can”? How many would go, I would say, “soft” at this point and suddenly say “Yes, I think other religions are fine”, contradicting exactly what Jesus says, contradicting exactly what the Bible says, and not in the end being as loving as Jesus who makes Himself so clear?
Well, Professor Alan Seagle comments on the survey which has taken place in America, the one I just mentioned, and he says “we are a multi-cultural society in America and it seems that people expect this American life to continue the same way in heaven”.
So let me summarise: this is virtually where our community, where our society stands at the moment: tolerance of every view is almost compulsory. Intolerance of any view is virtually despised. Take my dictionary, my thesaurus which I pulled off my shelf this week, here are some words that mean the same as ‘tolerant’: broadminded, open minded, patient, longsuffering, lenient, permissive, easy-going. Listen to intolerant: narrow-minded, bigoted, prejudiced, dogmatic, self-opinionated, small-minded. Which would you rather be?
It’s a very easy decision in a way, isn’t it? Emotionally it’s a very easy decision. And if Christianity is intolerant of other religions, no wonder it gets condemned by many. This is the big objection which is around us today.
Those who Despise Intolerance, are Intolerant of Christianity
Last week we looked at the question whether Christianity is irrelevant and I tried to show that’s an impossible position to take if you believe eternity is important. But the irrelevancy of Christianity is not often stated. You don’t find many people walking around and saying, “Oh, Christianity is irrelevant”, but when we come today to the question of the intolerance of Christianity, that is stated again and again and again in print, in the media, in our conversations in normal cafes and pubs. Wherever Christianity presents itself, a part of the human mind says, doesn’t it, “It cannot be right. It cannot be the only right position.”
So we’ve come to the strange position today where people who despise intolerance are intolerant of Christianity and that leads us to a very interesting situation.
“A Really Big Authority”
My second point, “A Really Big Authority”: that is Jesus. Number one [thing] Christians cannot put Christianity into the optional basket is Jesus, the Biblical Jesus. No one, of course, is more tolerant of people than Jesus. There were groups that no one wanted who found great acceptance with Jesus but no one was more intolerant of danger, of error, of evil than Jesus. If you lied to a child, if you misled anyone, especially on the subject of their eternal soul, that, to Jesus, was reprehensible.
Again, His invitation to the world is inclusive. “Come to me”, He says, “anyone come to me”, big open arms, but His salvation is exclusive to Himself; only He can save a person. Only the one who died on the cross can save you from dying, perishing. Only the one who suffered on the cross can save you from judgment. Only the one who died on the cross can save you from being condemned. He considers His salvation to be exclusive to Him.
Now one of the many proofs of this in the New Testament. The many proofs of this is John 5:21 (now if you like to look at this it is on page 1054). Let me read to you 5:21 of John’s Gospel: He says, “Just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom He is pleased to give it”. Jesus gives life.
“Find somebody who has left Jesus out of their worship, and you have found somebody who is not honouring the Father.”
It’s not some kind of yuppie life which Jesus gives to people so that you’ll feel happy and really good about yourself. No, as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so the Son gives life. This life is saying goodbye to death. This life is saying hello to a new life. This is saying goodbye to being cut off from God. This is saying hello to being in fellowship with God. “This is what God can do”, said Jesus. “This is what I can do”, says Jesus. “I can give life.”
Look at the next verse, verse 22. He says, “Moreover, the Father judges no-one but has entrusted all judgment to the Son.” Did you know that? The Father judges no-one but has entrusted all judgment to – and does He then say, “the religious figure of your choice”? No, He says He has entrusted all judgment to the Son.
And He goes on to say that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father, and then this absolutely scandalous comment, “He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent Him”. Now that is an astonishing sentence. John 5:23. Find somebody who has left Jesus out of their worship, and you have found somebody who is not honouring the Father.
A Public Demonstration of His Authority
Now we have to ask of course whether this is just talk, whether this is just hot air. The answer is “No” because Jesus have just given a proof that He can do it. A very famous public demonstration. He went to the Pool as you know in John 5, the public hospital. He saw a man there who was physically paralysed and asked him would he like new life (chapter 5 verse 6) and He gave it to him. He then caught up with him and said, “Turn from your sins because there is something worse than paralysis – and that’s coming to the judgment unprepared”, chapter 5 verse 14.
So there is Jesus demonstrating that He can give life and prepare a person for judgment. That’s what Jesus does to the world. That’s exactly what Jesus says He does for His people. He gives them new life – it comes from Him, the one who died and He gets you ready for judgment, it comes from Him because He was judged.
And so all must honour the Son. How are we to honour the Son? Well specifically chapter 5:24 by hearing His invitation and by believing.
So there’s the very tolerant Jesus: “whoever wants eternal life – listen, believe, I give it to you”, and there’s the very intolerant Jesus who says “nobody else can provide this. Nobody else can give you the life. Nobody else can get you ready for the judgment.”
Now, therefore, this is where sentimentality has to disappear from our discussion. This is where realism has to come into our discussion and we need to be unlike people who live by their sentiments, their feelings, their emotions. We have to be rational, clear-headed, faithful thinking, therefore loving people in the way we discuss this. There is nothing right about saying Jesus is optional, if He is essential. And there’s nothing right about saying that people can find their hope anywhere they like, if you cannot find hope anywhere you like. It’s a head and heart issue.
Telling the Truth is Not Intolerant; It is Love
Imagine you are in the outback – the bus has crashed, you see a crowd of little school children and they are rapidly dehydrating, they are having fights among themselves over what direction they should walk. You know perfectly well where the accommodation is. Is that a time for you to suddenly become tolerant of every person’s opinion? It’s not.
You must step in. Love means you have to tell the truth.
Or imagine you are in the city this week and a tourist is run over, seriously run over, and his friends are panic-stricken around him. And they are all shouting about where to get help. You know perfectly well what to do. You know the number. You know where the hospital is. Is that a time for you to think, well I’d better not, because that would be intolerant? No, that is a time where you would tell the truth because of love for the people and you’ll, if necessary, take charge.
Tolerance, you see, is like acceptance, but it needs your head and it needs your heart. It’s not enough to say at a primary school “we accept any one”. The primary school near where I live has the most serious trespassing signs on the walls. Because the primary school doesn’t accept anyone. It’s a tolerant-intolerant primary school. It needs a head and it needs a heart.
“There is no more important or significant or serious area, as Jesus famously said, than the safety of a person’s soul.”
It’s not enough to say in our hospitals “We’re very tolerant, we tolerate anything”. We hope, don’t we, that our hospitals operate on the basis of zero tolerance when it comes to carelessness and when it comes to germs. And a good intolerance at a hospital means that we refuse what is unreasonable.
It’s not enough in our law courts to say everybody is entitled to their views when we know that the law court is there to weed out, as best as it can, the lies which are so easily propagated. The future of people depend on weeding out the lies.
And there is no more important or significant or serious area, as Jesus famously said, than the safety of a person’s soul. So once you have worked out that somebody has got the ability and the willingness to look after a person’s soul, any person’s soul, and there’s only one person that has the ability to take that soul through the grave to glory, why would you ever say “pick your religion”? There’s nothing loving about that at all.
Once you’ve worked out the integrity of Jesus and the authority of Jesus that He loves people and there is proof that He loves people, there is proof that He has risen, once you are reasonably persuaded on those things, you’d have to be just confused to say, “Jesus is an option”. You’d have to be really loveless to say “I don’t care which direction you go”. And friends, you’d have to be really loveless as a parent to say (and I hear this every now and then), “I’ll let my kids decide”.
If you’ve been persuaded, you must do the very best you can, to pray and to tell and to model Jesus is the way, truth and the life. Intolerance, you see is a head-heart issue. Truth is crucial. Love tells the truth. We wouldn’t want people to follow some religions as you know where children are sacrificed or widows are burned. Ravi Zacharias describes one religion in his native India, a religion called Thaipusam, where iron spears are pierced into the body, skewers are forced from one side of the face to the other, devotees parade for hours, helpers pull on the hooks, and all of this to win the favour of a god.
Now that is a simpler decision, because we recognise with our eyes that is a terrible situation. Much more dangerous is the person that doesn’t listen to what Jesus says or pretends that what Jesus says is irrelevant, and assumes that happy peaceful people who live in our city are therefore safe. But they have no new life and will not escape judgment because Jesus, you see, is so loving He tells us, and He died.
To Save People, Don’t Accept that Every View is True
Now the way to make people safe is not to accept that every view is true. We accept every person’s right to tell their view but we want to check the authority of the view and the integrity of the view and if possible the result of the view. Is it any wonder that Christians keep pointing people to Jesus because they love people?
He’s my third and last point: “A Really Big Responsibility”, and that is [a responsibility for] Christians to communicate.
What are we to say to the charge of being intolerant? Well there are some clever things that we could say like, “are you intolerant of my intolerance?” or, “if everything is relative, so is your sentence”. Or I heard one preacher say once, “if relativism is right then all religions are right and if all religions are right, then Jesus is right, but if Jesus is right then other religions are wrong in which case relativism is wrong…right?”
Or we could take a humble approach; we could say Christianity is the religion that says we need help. It takes a very humble position in the world. Not at all an arrogant position. It says “we need outside help”. We might with the flipside of the coin say to somebody, “How can you say that no religion can be right? That’s more arrogant than any religion”, or “That’s an exclusive claim which discredits all the evidence as if God is unknowable”.
Sometimes the smart philosophical answer is helpful. Ravi Zacharias was once challenged at an American University by a professor in the question-and-answer time, who stood up and said, “You are talking in either/or categories; it’s a very Western way to speak”. “In the East,” said the professor, “people think in both/and categories”. Interesting question to raise with Ravi Zacharias, because he was born in India! And his answer went like this: “Sir, do you mean that when I go to India, I must use either a both/and argument or no argument at all?”
Well most of us are not that clever. Most of us are not that quick. Most of us are just simple believers trying to be faithful, trying to help people to face up to and be drawn to Jesus. We are as clear as we can be in our head that He is real, we are as clear as we can be in our head that other gods are not gods, they are inventions. We are not, of course, just wanting people to be saved; we are wanting people to honour Him, therefore. To recognise that He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
John Dixon says in his book [The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips], “Christianity is not just a rescue religion, it’s a reality religion”. We are bringing people to recognise idols are idols. Jesus is God. We are helping people to reality.
Persuading People Create Conflict
We also recognise that if we are going to try to persuade people, there will be conflict. It was so for Jesus, it has ever been so, it will always be so, especially when we are talking to our friends who seem to have the luxury of being able to choose any religion safely and yet we looking at people with the same convictions as Jesus, know that they are not safe and they will be in even greater danger soon.
We who have been entrusted with the mission of Jesus – and we have – we must see people with the same convictions that Jesus had for people. They need life. They need to be ready to meet Him. This is what Jesus says, chapter 5, verse 24, “whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent Me has at that moment eternal life”. That’s what we want for people and we will not be condemned. They have crossed over from death to life.
“John Newton sought in his prayers to God to love people that he met at first glance.”
And one more thing to say this morning, which I think is also crucial to our witness, is that we will have great love for people; that there will be a real balance of truth and love. It won’t just be that we have a case and we are right.
I was very struck this week to read that John Newton sought in his prayers to God to love people that he met at first glance. He didn’t wait for them to impress him; he sought to love people at first glance. And I suspect that if we ask God to cause us to really and genuinely love people, it will be the bridge on which truths, wonderful truths, will so easily cross over.
Is Christianity an intolerant religion? Yes – it is intolerant of error and evil. Is it tolerant? In the name of God it is very tolerant, looking to all people, patiently, to come to Jesus.
Let’s pray and bow our heads.
[Prayer]: Our Heavenly Father, we pray that you would help us in the midst of a world which is hostile to you and sometimes to us, to nevertheless be people of love and truth, faithful to you, faithful to your word. Help us, we pray, to have such fellowship with you that it spills over into joy and concern, a desire that people would honour you as you deserve, a desire that people would be saved and have eternal life and would be ready for judgment. We ask that as you have placed us and left us in the world, that you would help us and equip us to be your faithful witnesses. We ask it in Jesus’ Name – Amen.
- For more in this series, head to ‘Facing Up to Disbelief – A 5-Part Christian Growth Series’.